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The History and Impact of Cambodian Cuisine

Updated: Apr 4

Cambodian cuisine is one of the most overlooked and misunderstood cuisines of Southeast Asia. It hits all the right notes of saltiness, bitterness, acidity, and pungency. The cuisine is also regionally based within Cambodia – flavors and ingredients will differ from province to province. This is seen within the diaspora too where every Khmer family has their own spin on a dish, be it soups or stir-fries. Unfortunately, because it’s been misunderstood for years, those who are new to the cuisine have trouble deciphering what exactly Cambodian cuisine should look or taste like. All sorts of food aficionados, from food writers to travel bloggers, have perpetuated the notion that Cambodian cuisine is a mix of Indian, Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese influences. But what does that even mean? And is such a view historically accurate, or misrepresentative and potentially misleading? To understand this point of view, we have to look at the history of Cambodia.

[Image description: Fish is a staple food in the Cambodian diet and is often gathered into baskets similar to this.]

Cambodia’s pre-history goes as far back as the Neolithic period (Samrong Sen is one site located in Kampong Chhnang province that has been inhabited since approximately 1500 BC). This period marked the beginning formations of Cambodia’s earliest food collecting and cooking techniques: hunting, fishing, farming rice, domesticating animals, and foraging advanced throughout this pre-history period. Along with the land’s abundant and biodiverse waterways, such as the Mekong River which borders mainland Southeast Asia and Cambodia’s neighboring regions, local fermentation practices gradually developed, birthing a quintessential fermented fish paste ingredient called prahok. Many centuries later, the Tai people from China’s Southern Yunnan province would immigrate down into what was then the Khmer Empire and adopt these ancient fermentation practices, including the pungent prahok, into their own cuisine.

[Image description: A plate of Amok Trei, a steamed fish curry, with jasmine rice.]

Even later on, the Indianized state of Funan rose in 1st century CE, located around the Mekong Delta. Indianization, which refers to the historical spread of Hinduism, Buddhism and Indian culture, played a key role in shaping early Cambodia. Dr. Ea Darith’s research describes how Indian culture was not forced upon the Khmer people. Instead, they were able to choose what to adopt, including religions, writing systems, and architecture. It can be inferred that during this period, Indian spices and flavors were introduced into the local cuisine naturally, including their curry. This cross-pollination of cultures is not unfamiliar; we know how immigrants have come to shape food cultures across the world to produce unique dishes. Today, Indian spices and roots/rhizomes such as star anise and turmeric are some of the many ingredients found in quintessential Cambodian cuisine.

[Image description: Kroeung ingredients being pounded in a stone mortar and pestle to turn into paste.]

From these spices and roots emerged another key ingredient called kroeung. Kroeung is a paste compromising a blend of galangal, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and turmeric. When combined with prahok, it creates an aromatic combination unique to Khmer cuisine. This special combination can be found in a variety of Cambodian dishes such as Somlar M’Chu Kroeung Sach Ko (a kroeung-based sour beef soup).

[Image description: Kuyteav, a rice noodle soup, is a popular breakfast meal.]

Along with India, China was a prominent presence during this time and would continue to be influential, with later waves of Chinese immigration into Cambodia. Cambodian dishes such as Mee Katang (Katang meaning Canton, a stir-fried wide rice noodle dish with gravy) and Kuyteav (derived from Teochew Chinese, a rice noodle soup typically made with pork stock) reflect this historical relationship.

The Khmer Empire, once covering parts of what is now Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, reigned during the Angkor period (802 AD – 1431 AD). The Tai immigrants from Southern China intermingled with the local population, working as slaves and laborers. They would eventually advance into more administrative positions in the royal courts of Angkor, paving their way to establish the first Thai kingdom, Sukhothai. When the Tai people from the Ayutthaya Kingdom (a Thai polity that would later annex Sukhothai) pillaged Angkor in 1431, they took with them Khmers who possessed essential skill sets, such as cooks. In the following years, Thailand and Cambodia underwent a consistent exchange of cultures – including food. However, while Cambodian cuisine has kept a distinct flavor profile from its Thai neighbors, chefs of tourist-centric restaurants tend to dilute Cambodia’s known distinctive flavors, mainly to accommodate tourists coming from Thailand expecting more familiar Thai flavors, as described on Grantourismo Travels. This results in a kind of Thai-Cambodian fusion cuisine, which is one contributing factor to the question of why Cambodian cuisine is often described as being “similar” to Thai cuisine.

Much later, Vietnam entered Cambodia’s history, when the Nam Tien (southward expansion) campaign from the 11th to the 19th centuries led to the current occupation of the Mekong Delta, which was the indigenous home to the Khmer Krom (lower Khmer). In “Rice and Baguette: A History of Food in Vietnam,” author Vu Hong Lien describes how centuries-old Khmer culinary traditions, including fermented foods and spices, were absorbed into the Vietnamese palate, developing stronger flavor profiles compared to the milder northern Vietnamese cuisine. The southern version of Canh Chua, a Vietnamese regional sour soup, reflects the Cambodian influence through its usage of ingredients local to the Mekong Delta and its sour taste profile.

In sum, while it’s easy to describe Cambodian cuisine as a mix of influences from other countries, doing so doesn’t fully capture the scope, complexity, and historical nuance of Cambodia’s extensive culinary history. Such a reductionistic approach also disregards the equally substantial influence of Cambodian cuisine on contemporary Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. Taking the time to understand Cambodian cuisine, in all its historical richness, allows us to speak about it using a more informed mindset, thus causing less misunderstanding on the flavor profiles that constitute Cambodian food. We can then properly promote Cambodian cuisine for what it really is – a distinctly unique cuisine with bold notes of saltiness, bitterness, acidity, and pungency – whose culinary traditions continue to make a lasting impression in Southeast Asia.

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